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In the footsteps® of

Private Edwin Eric MacGregor

2nd Battalion, the Canterbury Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade, New Zealand Division

The Airey family at the grave of Private Edwin Eric MacGregor

The Airey family at the grave of Private Edwin Eric MacGregor.  [© Ian R Gumm, 2019]

Edwin Eric MacGregor enlisted in the New Zealand Army at Christchurch on 15 December 1915 and was posted to C Company 11th Infantry. He was sent to the May Morn in the Mangaroa Valley and arrived on 18 December 1916 to begin his training.

May Morn Camp was what was known as a "canvas camp" as there were no barrack blocks and only tents were used to accommodate the soldiers. It was nevertheless considered a model camp, particularly with regards to its sanitary arrangements. The few wooden buildings on site served for such purposes as the headquarters, the cookhouse, the stores, the hospital and recreational facilities.

When the First World War began in August 1914 New Zealand had no established army training base. Mobilization camps were set up in the main centres to assemble men for the first body of troops which set sail in October 1914. On the very same day that those initial transports left for the War around a thousand men, along with building equipment, arrived at Trentham with the aim of establishing a permanent military base there. The site had been chosen because it was the location of the Dominion Rifle Association’s rifle range, which had previously been used by New Zealand military during the Boer War.

Trentham was originally a canvas camp consisting only of bell tents to accommodate the recruits. These tents were gradually replaced over the course of 1915 as long wooden barrack blocks were built, each of which accommodated around 100 men. Other administrative, service, and recreational buildings also began to be put up, along with roads and drainage systems.

By July 1915 the partly built camp had a population of 8000. Overcrowding and inadequate sanitary arrangements led to an outbreak of measles and meningitis that caused several deaths and created a national scandal. The subsequent commission of enquiry led to hygiene improvements and the creation of satellite camps to cope with overflows in troop numbers. May Morn was one of those satellite camps. The population of Trentham camp was also restricted to 5000 men.

On 3 February 1916 Edwin was transferred to Featherston Training Camp. Featherston Camp was New Zealand’s largest training camp during the First World War, where around 60,000 young men trained for military service on European battlefields between 1916 and 1918. At its peak, Featherston Camp could sleep and feed more than 9000 men, and train them to be infantrymen, artillerymen, cavalry, and machine gunners.

The Mangaroa Valley was the location of night exercises and a mock “dawn attack” that took place as part of the “March over the Hill”. At the conclusion of their infantry training at Featherston camp troops would march over the Rimutaka Ranges back to Trentham, where they had a final brief spell of instruction before final leave and embarkation. This “march over the hill” had a practical purpose, in that it not only provided troops with one last strenuous workout but it also served as a convenient way of shifting them back to Trentham without going to the expense of rail transport. As well as this, though, the march proved an effective publicity exercise, attracting photographers and newspaper reporters, along with plenty of local residents to follow and bid farewell the men.

The three day march began early in the morning in Featherston where, in full uniform and kit and accompanied by locals, the men began the climb up Rimutaka Road. At that time this was just a single-lane gravel track, but it followed pretty much the same route as SH2 does today. Once at the summit the troops would stop for a meal break. Food and hot tea was provided by women from the Wairarapa Patriotic Association, who had a shed with tanks and a boiler specially built here for this purpose. After their meal the troops would head down the range to Kaitoke where they would bivouac for the night (ie, sleep out in the open without erecting tents). The next morning they would march down Main Road, stopping for lunch at Maidstone Park, before marching over the hill to the Mangaroa Valley. Here they would undertake night manoeuvres, again spending a night in the open, before staging a mock attack on May Morn camp at dawn. After this they would proceed on to Trentham, arriving sometime around noon.

On 1 April 1916 Edwin sailed from Wellington Harbour on either the Troopship Maunganui, HMNZT 49 (or Troopship Tahiti, HMNZT 50) as part of the 11th Reinforcements and sailed to Egypt where they disembarked at Suez on 3 May 1916.

On disembarkation the 11th Reinforcements were transferred to the NZ Training Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir, which is 110 km north-north-e1ast of Cairo and 75 kilometres south of Port Said. Here they remained for a couple of weeks before heading to Alexandria for transportation to France and the Western Front.

On 20 May 1916 Edwin embarked on the SS Ivernia at Alexandria bound for France.

The SS Irvernia was a British ocean liner owned by the Cunard Line that was hired by the British Government as a troop transport ship at the outbreak of the First World War. On 1 January 1917, the Ivernia was carrying some 2,400 British troops from Marseille to Alexandria, when at 10:12am she was torpedoed by the German submarine UB-47 58 miles south-east of Cape Matapan in Greece, in the Kythira Strait. The ship went down fairly quickly with a loss of 36 crew members and 84 troops.

On 28 May 1916 Edwin disembarked at Etaples, France and was attached to the NZ Infantry Base Depot.

After a period of rest and reorganisation following the Gallipoli evacuation, the newly formed New Zealand Division left for France in early April 1916. They began arriving in Marseilles on 11 April 1916 and immediately boarded trains to head northwards to Flanders where the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was concentrated. After a three-day journey, the New Zealand soldiers set up camp around the town of Hazebrouck.

The New Zealanders were soon introduced to the new tactics that had been developed by the BEF during 18 months of fighting. The Officers and NCOs attended courses on grenades, trench warfare, and machine-gunnery, amongst other things, so they could circulate new ideas to the ranks as soon as possible.

The BEF also used pamphlets and circulars to disseminate information. New Zealand officers had to read and absorb far more official material than they had been required to in Gallipoli or Egypt. Censorship increased, and rules tightened around the use of personal cameras in the front line making private photographs of the Western Front very rare compared to those of Gallipoli.

The new environment also meant new equipment. The New Zealanders received British-made 'PH Hood' gas masks for protection against chlorine and phosgene poison gases, and everyone had to practise new gas drills and attend live demonstrations at British gas warfare schools. New Zealand soldiers began wearing the new rounded 'Brodie' pattern steel helmet and, unlike at Gallipoli, were well supplied with grenades – Mills Bombs. Each battalion was equipped with eight Lewis Guns, significantly bolstering the firepower of New Zealand infantry.

Retrained, reorganised and re-equipped, the New Zealand Division moved to a 'quiet' sector of the front near the town of Armentières to gain experience in the trenches. The trench systems here were stable and well-designed, although prone to flooding due to the low water table. A support line 180 m behind the front line was backed up by another 540 m back; the three lines were linked by a maze of communication trenches, which allowed men to move between them under cover. Observation posts, machine-gun posts and other strongpoints were sited at carefully chosen spots, and dugouts provided shelter from the elements. Belts of barbed wire protected the British lines.

The New Zealand Division was integrated into the British garrison system. Only two of the division's three brigades (increased to four in 1917) were in the trenches at one time. The third was stationed in reserve in Armentières, as was divisional headquarters. Each brigade spent 10–14 days in the trenches, followed by a week in reserve. As the New Zealanders grew accustomed to their surroundings, they began sending out patrols into no-man's-land and launched a series of aggressive trench raids against the German lines in their sector.

The purple line on the map above shows the front line between May and August 1916 in the Armentières Sector, where the New Zealand Division received its introduction to the Western Front.

During June, the II ANZAC Corps, comprising the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions, arrived in France from Egypt, and on the 20 June 1916 General Godley established his headquarters at Bailleul. The New Zealand Division was transferred to the II ANZAC Corps on their arrival and the 4th Australian Division replaced it in the I ANZAC Corps.

Initially, however, the New Zealand Division remained for both tactical and administrative purposes under General Birdwood's control until the first week in July 1916, when the I ANZAC Corps, consisting of the 1st 2nd and 4th Australian Divisions, set out for the battlefield on the Somme. General Godley then took command of the sector. It was during this period that Edwin joined the 2nd Battalion, the Canterbury Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Stewart on 27 June 1916.

The move of the I ANZAC Corps southwards to the Somme affected the New Zealand Division in more ways than the one already described, as its front was extended southwards to include the adjoining Bois Grenier subsector. Here on 4 July 1916, during a heavy hostile bombardment, a brigade of the 2nd Australian Division was relieved by the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade. The Divisional artillery at the same time took over the battery positions supporting the new subsector.

Unusually the New Zealand Division now had all three infantry brigades in the line, and thus no formed Divisional reserve was available. The Pioneers were earmarked for the inner Armentières defences, and arrangements were made to form a composite reserve of the Engineer companies and the battalion of each brigade in the town billets. On alarm these would assemble at their respective alarm posts and report to Divisional Headquarters by telephone, or, if the wire were cut, by an officer.

During the following week the front was again extended south by the inclusion of the Rue du Bois subsector, held by another Australian brigade. The 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade side-stepped south to take over this subsector while retaining half of the Bois Grenier subsector. The northern half of the Bois Grenier subsector was added to the 1st New Zealand Brigade's area. At the same time the 5th Australian relieved the 4th Australian Division in the southern half of the Corps sector.

The extension of the front occupied by the New Zealand Division to include the Bois Grenier and Rue du Bois subsectors meant that they were now responsible for 8½ miles, a length normally occupied by 2 Divisions, and this placed a considerable strain on both the fighting troops and administrative services. The Field Ambulances now manned 5 advanced and 3 main dressing stations, in addition to the Divisional rest station; each Infantry brigade had now three battalions in the trenches and one in the subsidiary line; and the Division was left without infantry reserves. Reliefs in the line were confined for the most part to internal battalions arrangements, companies taking turn in the front and support trenches. This unusually long period of duty in the line without a rest spell in Armentières added to the trying conditions during July, led to a rather high rate of sickness, which was further aggravated by a measles epidemic. Not least affected by the arduous nature of their duties were the machine gun companies.

On 1 July 1916 the offensive began on the Somme and, in an effort to divert the enemy's attention north and thereby tying down the German forces in the area, active minor operations were undertaken along the whole northern front. The New Zealand Division played a full part in these operations.

A system of vigorous patrolling was instituted at once and every means possible was used to annoy the enemy — shell-fire, trench mortar bombs, rifle grenades, sniping, and machine-gun, Lewis gun, and rifle fire. Naturally the enemy retaliated with the result that the Armentières quiet sector rapidly became anything but a peaceful one. Patrolling during the night was considerably more active and there were two types of patrol:

1. Patrols the objective of which was to watch the enemy. These patrols were sent out with instructions to obtain some definite piece of information about the enemy's activities. They rarely exceeded three men in strength, in order to be as inconspicuous as possible , and had instructions not to get themselves involved in a fight, unless it was absolutely impossible to do anything else. Three patrols of this kind were usually sent out on each company's front every night, during the period between the evening stand-down and the morning stand-to, and the night was divided equally between them so that at no point in the night was no-man's-land free of patrols. The duty officer was responsible for seeing that the patrols went out at the proper times and by the proper routes, and for keeping the sentries in the trench informed of their probable movements.

2. Fighting Patrols. These patrols were, by their very nature, much stronger and their duty was to seek out and attack the enemy.

During this period in the Armentières Sector, where the objective was to drive the enemy out of no-man's-land, fighting patrols were more common than normal.

On 7 July 1916 Edwin was wounded by a gunshot wound to the head whilst in the Armentières Sector. It is not known whether he was wounded whilst on patrol or in the trenches. He was evacuated to No 2 Casualty Clearing Station that same day where he died four days later on 11 June 1916. He was subsequently buried in Bailleul Community Cemetery, plot 2, row E, grave 49, he was 23 years and 8 months old at the time of his death.

In April 2019 I had the honour to follow in the footsteps of Private Edwin Eric MacGregor in the company of his great-niece Pamela Airey, his great-great-nephew Bevan Airey and his wife Jemal, and their children Edwin's great-great-great-nieces Jordan and Rebecca and great-great-great-nephew James.

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Page last updated: 22 April 2022